Work in Progress: Improving Engineering Students’ Need-finding Abilities

TitleWork in Progress: Improving Engineering Students’ Need-finding Abilities
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsFlus, M., C. Rennick, and A. Hurst
Conference NameASEE Annual Conference and Exposition

Design theories such as the popular design thinking approach outline a number of stages of design, typically: needs assessment, problem definition, concept generation, implementation, and evaluation. While engineering students apply design methods, they rarely practice the needs finding step. There are limited opportunities for them to choose a project topic during their undergraduate education, let alone perform a comprehensive needs assessment.

All Canadian undergraduate engineering students participate in a capstone project in their fourth year. One predictor for the quality of the capstone project is the problem chosen by the students, and the effort spent on understanding it. Engineering instructors at the University of Waterloo have identified a lack of opportunities for students to practice their need finding and problem identification skills prior to fourth year. As a result, they have developed a set of in-class activities for third year engineering students to better prepare them for the problem identification stage of their capstone projects. These interventions were only conducted during one academic term and varied between disciplines.

The objective of this research is to conduct evidence-based program improvement. The study aims to identify the teaching practices that improve need finding competencies in engineering graduates and develop interventions to be implemented in the engineering design curriculum. More specifically, in this ongoing study, the authors explore how students identify, select, and justify their capstone project problem; whether in-class instruction on needs identification and assessment improved capstone project outcomes; and which intervention strategy is most effective.

To address these objectives, we use a two-phased mixed-methods approach. The first phase of the study – the results of which will be discussed in this paper - seeks to investigate student needs identification processes and measure the effects of any in-class instruction on those processes. A survey is disseminated to all students in the Mechatronics, Mechanical, Electrical and Computer Engineering classes in the first term of their fourth year, halfway through their capstone design project. We compare the need finding and problem identification strategies of those students who received need finding interventions in their third year to those who did not based on their survey responses. Survey results are used to qualitatively assess the effectiveness of the interventions in improving students’ ability to find and assess needs.

In a second, future phase, the two groups will be assessed at the conclusion of their capstone project. Students’ final designs will be evaluated along a number of dimensions, including problem usefulness and novelty. This evaluation will determine if the effects of need finding interventions improved overall capstone project quality.

The results of this study will aid in the design of future interventions and teaching practices. The study, and any interventions that will be designed as a result of the study, will support improvements to the program quality by addressing an important curricular gap in engineering design education.